Episode 10 - Conservation District

The ABCs of the BCD

by Kent Myers, Bitterroot Conservation District

November 2021


Since the early 1940s, the Bitterroot Conservation District (BCD) has worked with the citizens of Ravalli County to conserve their soil, water, and other natural resources.   The specific activities of the BCD have evolved over the years, but its core mission of promoting natural resource conservation has remained unchanged.


The history of conservation districts starts back with the Dust Bowl.  The U.S. Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act in 1935, with the goal of providing soil and water conservation assistance to the nation’s farmers.  States were encouraged to form soil conservation districts that would allow for greater local involvement in soil and water conservation programs.  Montana’s conservation districts were created by the state legislature in 1939, and the BCD was officially chartered in 1941.  Montana’s 58 conservation districts are part of a network of over 3000 conservation districts across all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Technically speaking, conservation districts are legal subdivisions of state government that are responsible for promoting soil and water conservation on the local level.  In Montana, state law gives conservation districts the specific authority to conduct resource surveys, develop conservation plans, and carry out or support projects related to natural resource conservation.  Because of their unique legal status, conservation districts are positioned to assist landowners by connecting them to various sources of project support at the local, state, and federal levels.


Montana’s conservation districts are also tasked with implementing the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act of 1975 (often referred to as the “310 law”).  This act requires that any project which will be performed in or near a natural stream in Montana must first be approved by the local conservation district and a permit (“310 permit”) must be issued.  Because of the large number of natural waterways in the Bitterroot watershed and the relatively high population density, managing the 310 permitting process is a major component of the BCD’s annual workload, with upwards of 100 projects being reviewed and permitted each year.


The procedure for applying for a 310 permit is straightforward and there is no fee for the permit.  A single application form is used for 310 permits as well as any other permits that may be required depending on the nature and location of the project.  The required information includes a detailed description of the project, plans or drawings with sufficient detail to allow the BCD to understand the nature of the project, and the expected impacts on the stream and surrounding area.  A site inspection is typically required and is performed by a team comprising the applicant, area BCD supervisor, and FWP biologist.  After the inspection, BCD supervisors review the application and inspection report at the next scheduled meeting, at which time the supervisors can either act to approve, modify, or deny the project, or to table it if more information is required.  The application process is often completed in less than a month.   Permits remain in effect for a period of one year from the approval date.


Another priority for the BCD is educating kids about natural resources and the environment.  Conservation Days is a two-day program for sixth graders in Ravalli County that is put on by the BCD each year.  The event, which is held in May at Como Lake, gives students a chance to learn from the experts about soils, grazing, wildlife habitat, and resource management.  Over 150 students typically participate in this fun and educational event.  The BCD also has a working model of a watershed, which is mounted on a trailer and is available for conservation-oriented public events.  The model includes all of the features of a typical watershed and gives kids of all ages a hands-on way to learn about erosion, floodplains, and stream dynamics.


The BCD also contributes to natural resource conservation in Ravalli County through its cost-share program, which provides grants of up to $7000 for projects involving habitat improvement and/or erosion control on private lands. For larger projects, the BCD will typically partner with other entities and will provide financial, administrative, and technical support.


The BCD office is located in the USDA building at 1709 North First Street in Hamilton and is open from 8:00-5:00 Monday-Friday.  You can contact the BCD at (406) 361- 6181 or by email at bcd@qwestoffice.net.  BCD meetings are open to the public and are held on the second and last Tuesday of each month at 7:00 PM, currently via Zoom.  More information about the BCD, including meeting agendas and minutes, can be found at the BCD website (bitterrootcd.org).


Additional Resources:

Montana Association of Conservation Districts

Living on the Banks

310 Permits